Magazine article The Christian Century

Under Fire

Magazine article The Christian Century

Under Fire

Article excerpt

IN ONE OF his classes, Stanley Hauerwas was asked,"What do you think of Willimon's preaching?" Hauerwas said, "My main criticism is that Willimon is far too subtle, much too charming. It's that southern soft-talk thing he does so well. I keep hoping that one of these days he is going to get the gospel so right and so clear that the university administration will finally figure out what he's talking about and say, `This guy is against everything we believe! Fire him!' He hasn't yet preached that well, but I keep hoping."

Well, the time for my termination may have come, but not at the hands of pluralistic, pagan university administrators. The call is coming from a few mad fellow United Methodists.

When I returned from a student mission trip in Honduras, where I had been doing the gospel as best I knew how, my wife greeted me with, "You have some vile stuff to read. And please don't ask me again to check your e-mail while you are away."

I assumed that she was referring to the reaction to Sunday's sermon, or the student response to my attack on their alcohol problems. No. In its monthly newsletter, UM Action--having savaged bishops, church bureaucrats and almost any other United Methodist with whom it disagrees--had trashed me. UM Action, tool of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, informed its constituency that the time had come to pull the plug on Willimon. The group demanded my immediate resignation, and printed my e-mail address on its Web site.

For the past two weeks, I've been getting about a hundred e-mails a day. Two thirds of them call me cowardly for not resigning, a third of them write to show support for a brother attacked by "screwy right-wing homophobes" (not my term). Many raise questions about my sexuality (how could someone in Ohio know about that?). "Coach K is a greater Christian leader than you ever hope to be," said one. "He won a national championship in basketball. You have lost the game of life."

For 20 years I've been agitating for United Methodist renewal, and I have never met people like these UM Action people. I forwarded some of the more salacious e-mails to Mark Tooley, director of UM Action, since he instituted it all. He wrote back saying, If you can't take the heat, get out of the kitchen.

The wrath of the righteous was kindled against me because Duke, after five years of saying that it would not permit same-sex unions in the non denominational university chapel, has now said that it would. Last fall the president and I appointed a committee--made up of many United Methodist pastors, plus laity and a bishop--to study the matter. The committee unanimously recommended that, in the interest of continuing to foster vibrant ecumenical cooperation on our campus, we ought to allow those pastors who serve Christian churches that perform such unions, such as the United Church of Christ, to do them at Duke.

Most folk received this news as information. The two North Carolina United Methodist bishops, while reiterating that the United Methodist Church does not approve of these unions, issued statements saying that they understood the school's rationale. Over 20 different religious groups work on our campus. Many engage in ministries that are not mine. Some hold beliefs with am in deep disagreement. I don't "approve" of the worship of Catholics, but we gladly permit them to worship every week in our basement. I think the conservative evangelicals who don't ordain women are wrong, but I welcome their willingness to work with me.

Some Methodists still long for that Constantinian day when our church might be so powerful that we could cram down everyone else's throat that which we have difficulty enforcing even within our own congregations. That day, if it ever existed, is long gone at places like Duke. So it was nothing new to me to permit someone to do something with which I and my church disagree. I did not "approve" of same-sex unions, and I will not perform them. …

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